Education's role in moulding leadership

This includes dealing with failure and developing good EQ

Business education has changed beyond recognition since I graduated from what would eventually become the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School in 1968 - just three years after the birth of independent Singapore.

At the time, there were just 21 of us, pioneer graduates from what was then the new bachelor's degree in business administration.

Looking back, those who signed up for the new programme had a sense of adventure and the courage to try something different.

This year, around 600 aspiring young business leaders graduated with the same qualification.

They are entering a world with a very different commercial psyche, one where change is the only constant, where imagination and innovation drive business.

To be effective leaders, to reach the top echelons, they must learn to manage and control this impatience. Having empathy, engaging and understanding others, and caring about how they think is vital.

Handling the pressure this brings demands a quality of character and personality - one that cannot be assessed by grades alone, but one which I believe is an equally important product of education.

Education, after all, is about more than just arming the individual with data and knowledge.

It is about nurturing the full personality - the individual's spirit of adventure, to analyse, explore, understand and think critically about the world around him.

More and more, the qualities that define exceptional leadership come not from academic distinction, but from an ability to challenge the unknown, think differently, and tackle problems without fear of failure.

I am pleased to see that NUS Business School has taken the lead in putting these important soft skills at the centre of its programmes.

Innovative leaders think out of the box, turn conventions upside down and inspire others to follow.

They set out to make a difference - in their own lives, to their families, their careers and to the society they live in. These personalities take an open-minded approach towards risk and failure.

Today, we talk a lot about disruptive potential - if you want to disrupt, you must experiment, and with that comes the possibility that it will backfire.

Being open to this means being open to opportunity.

Indeed, failure is fundamental to the success and character-building of the individual. In a way, it is like getting sick - it builds up your immunity and toughens your character.

If you have never had a setback or never failed, then on the day when the defining crisis hits, you will be ill-prepared to deal with it.

In addition, while intelligence quotient (IQ) and grades remain important, more important still in future leaders is a strong emotional quotient (EQ).

The ability to communicate and interact across roles and across generations is now a critical skill and intelligence alone is not enough.

When we think of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, we think of a man of integrity with a very sharp intellect, who excelled academically.

In my opinion, he exhibited a high level of EQ as well as IQ. The affection with which he was regarded was demonstrated by the thousands who lined the streets to pay their respects after his passing.

Effective leaders are able to relate to and build bonds with those they lead. In short, they must be likeable.

Individuals with high intelligence tend to be very impatient. Usually, they know the answer to the question they are asking. They think quickly and expect others to work at the same pace.

But to be effective leaders, to reach the top echelons, they must learn to manage and control this impatience. Having empathy, engaging and understanding others, and caring about how they think is vital.

Leaders, by definition, are the drivers of change.

But effective and lasting organisational change cannot be achieved by force. Cultures and mindsets do not move overnight, this takes time.

Rather than use my position to push through change, I prefer to persuade and bring people around to my way of thinking. I believe in management not by fear, but by love.

In the mid-1970s, I joined the family-owned Overseas Union Bank (OUB), which has since been absorbed by United Overseas Bank.

I came from American-owned Citibank, which was many years ahead in terms of technology and management style.

I arrived with new ideas for doing things, but immediately came up against a wall that many new and enthusiastic managers will be familiar with.

The employees asked: "We've been doing it this way for years and done well, so why are you asking us to change?"

I realised then that to change cultures, you must be a role model and be prepared for the long haul.

At OUB, it took more than a decade to accomplish the cultural shift we wanted to put in place. We gradually won people over through dialogue and understanding.

I could have tried short cuts, using authority to force change.

But from my observations, short cuts bring only short-term gains. You may think you are the best manager, but when the crunch comes, no one will back you because you have not taken the time to build the connections and the support.

Many learn this through experience - an important learning tool for any leader.

I have been fortunate to have a career in the financial industry as it has grown into a central pillar of Singapore's economy and has helped give Singapore a place in the Asian and global economy.

Now, I see grooming the next generation of corporate leaders as my duty. I am pleased to be working with NUS Business School, along with other alumni and industry leaders, to engage and share experiences with those who will one day be our successors.

It is a vital part of building a sustainable economy for future generations and bringing to life the school's brand statement, "leading from Asia".

If our little red dot is to stand and compete on the global stage, we must ensure that we create a pipeline of world-class Asian talent, armed with the skills, values and personality to embrace the leadership challenges of tomorrow.


• Peter Seah is chairman of DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank. This commentary is based on his speech at the NUS Business School's 50th anniversary celebration earlier this month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Education's role in moulding leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe